Monday, March 20, 2017

Creature and Split

Of the four Dance Massive shows I saw this past week, three were duets. And all three of those duets were contained within very strict spatial parameters. Nick Power’s Between Tiny Cities happened within a circle of audience members. ( Full review in previous blog post.)

Seeing Creature by Jozsef Trefeli and Gabor Varga and then Lucy Guerin’s Split in a row, the similarity really stood out. After Between Tiny Cities a few days earlier, it was getting uncanny - all this dueting in the “round”…or in the case of Split, a square, in front of the audience. 

Uncanniness aside, each piece is unique and has something interesting to offer. You can’t really begin to compare them, as their intentions are completely different. 

In the case of Creature, Trefeli and Varga talk about their work as being about origins; about “ethnographic material under the lens of contemporary dance.” (Trefeli studied at VCA but has lived in Geneva for many years. Varga is Hungarian and also lives in Geneva). 

While I don’t profess to understand Creature on an archival or even socio-culture level, there was a clear sense of objects from various cultures (African, European and beyond) integrated into a movement work in perplexing and unusual ways. 
Creature, photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Creature was set in a basketball court smack in the middle of the Carlton Baths. We sat in a square of chairs in very bright daylight. The exposed space, with clear glass walls on two sides, looks into a gym in one direction and the foyer in another.  A school assembly would not be out of place in there. 

The men marched in with floral scarves (or perhaps Hawaiian shirts) wrapped around their whole heads and faces. One was a lot smaller than the other, but they had similar long strides and proud chests. Little cymbals on their chunky boots clanked as they arranged poles, lumpy cloth parcels and what looked like small tree trunks around the floor. They marked space and lines with the objects or by lying themselves down on the ground, as if measuring distance with their lengths. 

Amongst the pacing, they broke out in complex, folkloric foot sweeping, the little instruments on their shoes accompanying the strong taps of their feet. At one point they took turns cracking loud whips. Later they crawled around in the tree trunk mask/hats (which stood up quite high over their heads) like strange humped animals. By then they were wearing the lumpy parcels, now turned inside out into shaggy coats with little cloth rectangles attached like thick feathers. 

I was wondering if they would reveal their faces and eventually they did. The piece took on a whole new personal and intimate dimension once they were identifiable humans rather than faceless tree heads. They sang loudly (folk music of some sort, not in English) and made tight eye contact with the audience. 

There was a lot going on in Creature and I just succumbed to the fact that even though I didn't personally recognise all the visuals, they are culturally significant to particular populations and the men were investigating and up-ending them with both respect and a slight tongue in cheek. 

There is clearly method and rigour in the choreography itself - the complex foot patterns, the clearly delineated floor pathways, the choice to reveal faces, to sing, to engage with particular objects - but why those choices...I would like to know more...

Creature remains, for me, a fairly cryptic piece, but one that successfully reflects the mens’ mission to “give birth to a new choreography…a “creature” abounding with codes, intentions and keys to its interpretation.” 

Without dissecting all the cultural meaning (that would probably require a phD), as a performance, it's definitely a new creature, confident in its difference and quite unique as a contemporary dance offering. 

After all the textures of Creature, Lucy Guerin’s Split is extremely sparce. I loved watching this piece in a way I haven’t enjoyed much contemporary dance in a while. Guerin has gone back to movement and space and formality (rather than the theatricality she has recently been exploring.)
Melanie Lane and Lillian Steiner in Split
Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

It all happens in a large square delineated by white tape on a stark black floor. Two women - Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane - inhabit the spacious square for quite a long sequence of unison movement. Gradually they bisect the square with more white tape into ever-shrinking halves until they are trapped on top of each other in a tiny square upstage. Paul Lim creates a new lighting state for each tinier square as if each is its own little chapter. 

Steiner is completely naked for the whole performance while Lane wears a light blue short sleeved sweater and matching long skirt, so they appear very different to each other. 

What starts as precise unison movement in the big square (little jumps, tight squats, a slap of the wrist or thigh, shaking cat paws - both big and small accents with subtle shifts of weight and momentum) takes on a different, more sinister feel as the woman become more competitive and grotesque.

As their square implodes, unison gives way to a more predatory dynamic with animalistic arm twisting, rough piggy backs and sinister mauling. At one late point in the piece, Steiner mimes scooping out Lane’s guts and eating them. Yet within all this unfriendly suggestion are plenty of moments of non-antagonism - not an affection per say, but at least an acceptance of each other in the same environment.

Steiner and Lane are both fantastic. Steiner appears incredibly comfortable in her bareness and she’s a fluid, effortless mover, shifting between larger bodyweight changes and more micro-ripples with a muscular lightness. Lane is equally able with the intricate choreography but has a more solid, slightly heavier presence. Their unison is nearly flawless and as their relationship becomes more complex, their commitment and investment seems to grow. 

For all its imagery, Split still feels like a pure dance exploration with all the precision and formality that defines much of Guerin's work. It’s a simple premise, but there’s something spellbinding about its attention to detail and crisp execution. 

Carlton Baths
 17-19 March

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
17 - 26 March

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